Review Summary: Russia's finest stoner-rockers don't have a brake pedal.
I always approach an extremely prolific band with a certain scepticism - how can they keep up a high quality if they release an album every year? How can they produce a masterpiece if all their best ideas are spread out over several albums? Where the hell do I start?
This approach has proved to be inaccurate in many cases, for example Norwegian psychedelic gods Motorpsycho
this year managed to release a masterpiece eleven months after their last album, which was almost as good and came only a year after their previous masterpiece...
Leading on to topical band The Grand Astoria, their yearly LPs (excluding 2012) have shown a steady and exhilarating increase in quality from promising beginnings hindered by jarring punk-esque vocals to last year's epic 75-minute Punkadelia Supreme
in which they stated their intention to be one of the most distinctive stoner-rock acts around. Their sound flitted from insane wah-wah riffing to Eastern-influenced acoustic plucking, few songs under five minutes in length and every riff oozing with energy.
The band had two places to go from here: deliver a tighter, blistering magnum opus or lose their momentum and dip in quality. Evidenced by the rating, La Belle Epoque
is the latter, but don't be put off. In the time between these two albums, the band have
progressed, dispensing such versatile goods as an acoustic EP, 30-minute song and even a tribute album to Black Flag
. With these expansions of their sound, this album shows new, refreshing flairs like opener 'Henry's Got A Gun' which is a 3-minute blues-punk rocker and contrast to their usual style of 8-minute, morphing epics. Similarly, 'The Answer' presents a change of their usual pace, slow-burning and featuring a flute as well as Kamille Sharapodinov's recognisable dobro guitar use before the distortion enters. However, the song never feels the need for a fast passage or freak-out solo... that comes later.
After this demonstration that the band are not afraid to try new things, those waiting for the fuzz are treated to two epics in a row, 'Gravity Bong' and the 14-minute 'Serpent and the Garden of Eden,' which do not disappoint. It's all there, head-banging riffs via sensual interplay between guitarists Sharapodinov and Igor Suvorov, Vladimir Zinoviev's proficient drumming and double-bass-pedal use, cunningly-placed shredding solos, and even a few surprises on the way.
The latter track takes a number of unexpected detours, the development of hooks showing the band's dexterity and giving the song a convincingly progressive nature. Most enjoyable is a loungey blues break around the eight-minute mark, and after a return to stoner-rock riffing the song's time signature slows until the album's stand-out moment, where an orchestra and church-like bells come in for the song's spine-tingling, movie soundtrack-eqsue climax.
What's frustrating about this is that moments like these are much fewer and far between than Punkadelia
and even Omnipresence
, not due to bad songs but simply a lack of the same creative drive those albums had. The shortened length of this album at almost half as long as their previous is a telling sign of this; the guitar hooks, lyrics and song arrangements simply aren't as good. The title track is noticeable in its promising start, being some of the band's most relaxed and upbeat work, high-pitched bells and Sharapodinov's falsetto building to a brief musical interlude, then suddenly ending. This leaves the impression of lazy song-writing, like the album should have been given more time to develop rather than being rushed out maintain a one-album-a-year tradition.
While Sharapodinov's vocals have improved vastly from the thorniness of their first LPs to a point where they actually fit with the music, there are several instances of cringe-inducing lyrics excused only for the fact that English is not their first language, see phrases such as "In the dark / we carry on," "Love / is the answer" and most amusingly, Gravity Bong's "Moon is high / and so am I..."
Nevertheless, none of these issues stand out enough for the album to be unlistenable, and can somewhat be seen as a 'characterful' aspect of the band, akin to Sharapodinov's Russian accent at one point exclaiming "move your ess!" when he is clearly referring to your 'ass'. Besides, this album, along with the other new elements of The Grand Astoria's sound leading up to it, provide more impelling hope for the future that a magnum opus is upon us. Of course, this all depends on whether the band plays its cards right, fully-furnishing all of their ideas to their potental yet keeping up that prolific nature.